"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Ancient shipyard of Rome may be found

Sept. 23, 2011
Courtesy of the University of Southampton
and World Science staff

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists be­lieve they have dis­cov­ered a large Ro­man ship­yard at Por­tus, the an­cient port of Rome.

“Few Ro­man Im­pe­ri­al ship­yards have been dis­cov­ered and, if our iden­ti­fica­t­ion is cor­rect, this would be the larg­est of its kind in Italy or the Mediter­ranean,” said ar­chae­o­lo­gist Si­mon Keay of the Uni­vers­ity of South­amp­ton, U.K., di­rec­tor of the Por­tus Proj­ect, an in­terna­t­ional dig at the port.

The team has un­earthed re­mains of a huge build­ing near the cen­ter of the com­plex. “At first we thought this large rec­tan­gu­lar build­ing was used as a ware­house, but our lat­est ex­cava­t­ion has un­cov­ered ev­i­dence that there may have been an­oth­er, ear­li­er use, con­nect­ed to the build­ing and main­te­nance of ships,” said Keay.

The struc­ture is near a hex­ag­o­nal ba­sin in­to which newly built ships may have been launched, he added, but “there is no ev­i­dence yet of ramps which may have been need­ed” to launch these ves­sels. The ramps “may lie be­neath the early 20th cen­tu­ry em­bank­ment, which now forms this side of the ba­sin. Dis­cov­er­ing these would prove our hy­poth­e­sis be­yond rea­son­a­ble doubt, al­though they may no long­er ex­ist.”

Por­tus was a cru­cial trade gate­way link­ing Rome to the Med­i­ter­ra­nean through­out the time of the Em­pire. Un­til now, no ma­jor ship­yard build­ing for Rome has been iden­ti­fied, apart from the pos­si­bil­ity of one on the Ti­ber Riv­er near Mon­te Tes­tac­cio, and a smaller one re­cently claimed for the neigh­bor­ing riv­er port at Os­tia.

The new­found build­ing is thought to date from the sec­ond cen­tu­ry A.D. and would have stood about 145 me­ters long and 60 me­ters wide (159 by 66 yards), an ar­ea larg­er than a soc­cer field, re­search­ers said. In places, its roof was up to 15 me­ters high, or more than three times the height of a dou­ble-deck­er bus. Large brick-faced con­crete piers or pil­lars, still partly vis­i­ble, sup­ported at least eight par­al­lel bays with wood­en roofs.

“This was a vast struc­ture which... cer­tainly would have been large enough to build or shel­ter ships in. The scale, po­si­tion and un­ique na­ture of the build­ing lead us to be­lieve it played a key role in shipbuild­ing ac­ti­vi­ties,” said Keay.

In­ves­ti­ga­t­ions by Keay’s team in 2009 fo­cused on re­mains of two other build­ings, one of them amphitheatre-shaped, next to the new­found struc­ture. Keay ar­gues that to­geth­er these formed a key com­plex where an im­pe­ri­al of­fi­cial was charged with co­or­di­nat­ing the move­ment of ships and car­goes. Keay al­so be­lieves the ship­yard was an in­te­gral part of this.

Ad­di­tion­al ev­i­dence comes from in­scrip­tions found at Por­tus re­fer­ring to a guild of ship­builders or cor­pus fab­rum naval­ium porten­sium in the port, Keay and col­leagues say. Al­so, they ar­gue that a mo­sa­ic, now in the Vat­i­can Mu­se­um and once on the floor of a vil­la on the an­cient Via Lab­i­cana (a road lead­ing south east of Rome), de­picts the façade of a build­ing si­m­i­lar to the one at Por­tus, with a ship in each bay.

The find­ing “has ma­jor im­plica­t­ions for our un­der­stand­ing of the sig­nif­i­cance of the hex­ag­o­nal ba­sin or har­bour at Por­tus and its role with­in the over­all scheme of the port com­plex,” said Keay.

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Archaeologists believe they have discovered a large Roman shipyard at Portus, the ancient port of Rome. “Few Roman Imperial shipyards have been discovered and, if our identification is correct, this would be the largest of its kind in Italy or the Mediterranean,” said archaeologist Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, U.K., director of the Portus Project, an international dig at the ancient port. The team has unearthed remains of a massive building near the center of the complex. “At first we thought this large rectangular building was used as a warehouse, but our latest excavation has uncovered evidence that there may have been another, earlier use, connected to the building and maintenance of ships,” said Keay. The structure is near a hexagonal basin into which newly built ships may have been launched, he added, but “there is no evidence yet of ramps which may have been needed” to launch these vessels. The ramps “may lie beneath the early 20th century embankment, which now forms this side of the basin. Discovering these would prove our hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt, although they may no longer exist.” Portus was a crucial trade gateway linking Rome to the Mediterranean throughout the time of the Empire. The Portus Project team has been investigating the port’s significance. Until now, no major shipyard building for Rome has been identified, apart from the possibility of one on the Tiber River near Monte Testaccio, and a smaller one recently claimed for the neighbouring river port at Ostia. The newfound building is thought to date from the second century A.D. and would have stood about 145 metres long and 60 metres wide (159 by 66 yards), an area larger than a soccer field, researchers said. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, still partly visible, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs. “This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities,” said Keay. Investigations by Keay’s team in 2009 focused on remains of an “imperial palace” and amphitheatre-shaped building next to the newfound structure. Keay argues that together these formed a key complex where an imperial official was charged with coordinating the movement of ships and cargoes. Keay also believes the shipyard was an integral part of this. Additional evidence comes from inscriptions found at Portus referring to a guild of shipbuilders or corpus fabrum navalium portensium in the port, Keay and colleagues say. Also, they argue that a mosaic, now in the Vatican Museum and once on the floor of a villa on the ancient Via Labicana (a road leading south east of Rome), depicts the façade of a building similar to the one at Portus, with a ship in each bay. The finding “has major implications for our understanding of the significance of the hexagonal basin or harbour at Portus and its role within the overall scheme of the port complex,” said Keay.